Today caps off the worst week yet for Republicans in the 2022 campaign cycle. Their troubles began with Senate passage of the Chips and Science Act on Wednesday, July 27, and culminated in the Kansas pro-life rout on Tuesday, August 2. Before last week, the party was riding a red wave to victory in November’s elections. Now, one month before the campaign begins in earnest on Labor Day, aimless Republicans must fend off a Democratic Party that is playing offense.
Yes, the fundamentals continue to favor the GOP. Voters do not like this economy. They blame President Biden for inflation and supply shortages. The president’s job approval rating is 39 percent in the FiveThirtyEight average of polls. Republicans are enthusiastic, Democrats less so. Nancy Pelosi’s days as speaker of the House are numbered: The FiveThirtyEight model gives the GOP an 80 percent chance of winning the lower chamber of Congress.
Yet Republicans want more than control of the House. No one wants to repeat the gridlock, frustration, debt crises, shutdowns, and sequester that roiled the country when Democrats held the White House and Senate between 2011 and 2015. If Republicans gain only in the House, Biden won’t feel as much pressure to triangulate off the GOP Congress. He will be able to count on Senate Democrats to confirm his executive and judicial branch appointees. He will turn Kevin McCarthy and the MAGA Squad into foils and scapegoats. The media will be happy to play along.
The GOP needs a full-spectrum victory if it wants to stop the left and shock Democrats into abandoning Biden. The data and events of the past week suggest that the party has a way to go. For starters: Republicans have enjoyed a modest lead in the congressional generic ballot since January. Now the ballot is tied.
Meanwhile, according to FiveThirtyEight, the GOP nominee leads in only one of six key Senate races. The lucky Republican is Ted Budd in North Carolina. He’s ahead of Cheri Beasley by 1 point. The other Republicans are either close behind (Adam Laxalt in Nevada) or far gone (Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania). The GOP needs to net one seat to win Senate control. If the election were held at the time of writing, the party would lose three.
I know, I know: Most of these races are tight. Surveys this far out are unreliable. There is time for Republican challengers to define their opposition. How candidates react under pressure to unknown events in the coming months will be important. Polls of registered voters or all adults do not consider the widespread GOP enthusiasm that will be reflected in polls of likely voters this fall. And state-based polling has been notoriously off since at least the 2014 cycle.
Still, there is no denying that Republicans are acting less confident than just a week ago. The reason? They have been surprised and shell-shocked. Senate leader Mitch McConnell pledged that Republicans would block the $280 billion Chips and Science Act of 2022 for as long as Democrats tried to reach agreement among themselves on a big-spending reconciliation bill. Republicans mistakenly assumed that Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia was opposed to reconciliation because of inflation. To be fair, he said exactly that on July 14.
On July 27, 17 Republicans voted to pass the Chips Act, subsidizing U.S. semiconductors for reasons of national security. Hours later, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced that he had reached a deal with Manchin on a climate, health care, and tax bill absurdly known as the “Inflation Reduction Act.” Regardless of whether the deal holds, the Senate Republicans had been outmaneuvered. “Looks to me like we got rinky-doo’d,” said Sen. John Kennedy. “That’s a Louisiana word for ‘screwed.'”
Then, on August 2, voters in Kansas rejected an effort to overturn a state court’s ruling that the Sunflower State constitution guarantees a right to abortion. Similar referenda allowing state legislatures to regulate abortion have passed in West Virginia, Alabama, Tennessee, and Louisiana. But this was the first such initiative put to the ballot since the Supreme Court held Roe v. Wade unconstitutional. Kansas voted for Donald Trump by 15 points in 2020—and voted to maintain a state right to abortion by 18 points in 2022.
Kansas was a defeat for the pro-life movement. It also scared Republican strategists, whose eyes bugged out at the huge Democratic turnout in the middle of the summer. The GOP consultant class was leery of abortion politics to begin with. Now it is all but guaranteed to steer its clients away from a debate over the issue.
This is the wrong response. Too many Republican candidates won’t defend their stance on abortion and provide counter examples of pro-choice extremism. Afraid of what the party’s pro-life ultras might say, Republicans opt for reticence and mixed messaging on abortion rather than offering measures that command public support.
“Imagine thinking that what it will take to win the people’s support after this historic [Supreme Court] victory on the human right to life is to ignore it all together and put all your chips on economic issues,” wrote veteran conservative activist Gary Bauer on August 3. “Go on the campaign trail and talk about carried interest, semiconductor shortages, and misuse of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Follow the lead of presidential nominees Dole, McCain, and Romney, who rode social issue silence all the way to second-place finishes in national elections.”
Here, then, is the Republican dilemma: The party’s Senate candidates are weak, it has no economic message beyond lamenting inflation, and its fear of the social issues leaves it exposed. “Without an answer to the left’s attack, Republicans in extremely winnable races will lose—and badly,” warned social conservative leader Frank Cannon, who urged Republicans to get behind laws banning abortions after the fetus has a heartbeat and after it is capable of feeling pain. “Now we are in the democratic era of the abortion debate,” Cannon went on. “Republican members of Congress can no longer act like the decision is out of their hands.”
Nor can Republicans act like the outcome of the 2022 election is predetermined. They may have thought that the Democratic majority would collapse under its own weight. They learned this week that it won’t.